Real Estate

Exploring Seestadt, Pt. 1: How Vienna is building the newest part of the city from the ground up

(Editor’s note: This post on Seestadt is the first in a two-part series. You can jump to Pt. 2 here.)

On an unusually warm April day, a friendly American city-planner and I jumped onto the U2 underground train and headed for the final destination on the line. Once we crossed the Danube River, the city gave way to small residential neighbourhoods and industrial parks, before flattening itself into broad swathes of fields and dusty rectangles of cleared ground ready for construction.

Cranes and machinery studded the horizon line. As we neared the end of the line, a collection of tall residential and office buildings came into view, clustered around a small man-made lake.

This is Seestadt, the newest part of Vienna and the blossoming centre of the 22nd district.

From abandoned airfield to a new city within a city

Originally the Aspern airfield until the airport closed in 1977, the area on the plains stretching east of Vienna were purchased by the city of Vienna in 1992. The decommissioned airport lies about 11 kilometers from the central district of Vienna, and was slated for development in 2003, leading to a competition to design the masterplan of the new city. The proposal of Swedish architecture firm Tovatt Architects & Planners, in cooperation with the German office N+ Objektmanagement, was approved in 2007, and the first stages of construction were started two years later.

The first completed building was the 7,000 meters2, 15 million euro Aspern IQ Technology Center, followed by the completion of the Aspern Nord and Seestadt Ubahn stations in 2013 connecting the area to the city in roughly 30 minutes (22 minutes to Praterstern and 30 minutes to Stephansdom).

Two years later, the first residents moved in and a city was born.

The design

The element of European cities that give them their famously antique and historic aesthetic that draw tourists from all over the world is also their greatest curse. When a city has been developed over the course of two millenia, design and planning becomes a living process. This character is precious, but makes building anything new very challenging.

The first thing that is obvious when arriving in Seestadt is that it does not suffer from carrying this yoke of history. Built from nothing, every element of the city could be planned and designed unimpeded.

All photos by Thom Harding

The centre of Seestadt is the eponymous lake (Seestadt means lake-city in German), surrounded by the tallest buildings in the project. This creates the feeling of a hub and a centralized community around the train station connecting the city to the wider world. The water in the lake is clean enough to swim in, and surrounded by parks and pebbly beaches leading down the shore.

Although the lake is definitely small, it is a clear example of city-planning with green and natural space as a central tenet of the design.

As you start to walk through the residential and business building, one thing becomes immediately clear … most of the streets are pedestrian. The one main road, Sonnenallee, is a ring road circumventing the centre limited to 30 kilometers per hour, so the loud and bustling feel of a motorized city is largely absent.

The entire place is designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, including separated bike paths and a grassy peninsula stretching down the length of the main road splitting the lanes and making it safer for those crossing by foot.

There has clearly been a lot of space dedicated to shared and community space, with plenty of small squares and courtyards either between the buildings or nestled into the corner of blocks and cul-de-sacs.

Too much concrete, not enough privacy

Despite this, it still feels a little too industrial, with much of this space dominated by concrete, although this began to be remedied in 2022 after complaints about the lack of green space, planting beds, water features and trees.

Each apartment building has outside space to be used by the residents, although there is a clear difference between this space and that in the original city. In the centre, shared outside residential space is usually located in an innenhof, or interior courtyard, hidden away from the rest of the city. In Seestadt, it is mostly open to the street or created by a small platz beside the building, which is great for increasing the sense of shared community space as a whole, but definitely limits the feeling of privacy.

A few buildings have a shared space within a ring of structures, sometimes cleverly elevated from street level so it really feels separate and private from the streets surrounding it.

This question of privacy has also been addressed in many places by make sure that neighbouring buildings are pivoted away from each other so that balconies and windows face directly into someone else’s life as little as possible.

The colour and design of the buildings are not beautiful in the way that older European buildings are, but do contain a subdued and friendly tone without any abrasive or challenging concepts, a soft sea of mild concrete planes and surfaces.

Young, diverse families in a safe place

All of these design choices create a very unique feel to the city, completely different from the rest of the city of Vienna. Firstly, silence. By moving the main car road to the outside of the city, it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful walking through the pedestrian zones and along the connecting paths.

With many bike paths and the addition of the Aspernmobil bike-rental program (above), the city also encourages people to avoid travelling by car and to use more green methods of transportation.

The vibe of the place also suggests that it is a place designed for families.

Not only does the lack of heavy transit roads mean that it is very safe, but there are also small play areas, swings and slides dotted between the buildings and in the courtyards for children to use. Walking around, it is clear that many of the residents are young families, and indeed many of the 10,000 people who already live in the city are couples with young children.

It also feels quite diverse, compared to the rich, white demographic that make up much of the central districts in the city proper. The general environment is of modernity, without pushing the boundaries of architecture or design into anything that feels futuristic.

There are no lustrous metallic forms on the facades of buildings, or edgy contemporary art adorning the walls or open spaces. The only clear effort that has been made to be “modern” are the street names, which seem to be uniformly women’s names. Although having people’s first and last names as a street can be a mouthful, the city planners tried to place the city in the 21st century and make a change by celebrating successful and important women of Austrian and international history.

After all, in 2020 Vienna had only 519 streets named after women, compared to 4,022 named after men.

A bubble waiting to grow

The overwhelming sense of the place is that of an island of urbanism in a sea of fields and construction sites waiting to become something more real. As Seestadt is still only half-way finished, it is possible to reach the end of the lived-in zones and look out at, well, nothing.

This gives the feeling of being in a little bubble that is still waiting to grow. Although extremely well-connected with the Ubahn train line (and the faster regional trains also stop in the nearby Aspern Nord station), it still feels very disconnected from the city of Vienna itself.

However, the land surrounding Seestadt has already been purchased by the city of Vienna for further development as the city expands, and so it will only be a matter of time before the city stretches and swells so that the island of Seestadt is subsumed into the approaching waves of a growing European capitol.


Read more about Vienna here in Dispatches’ archives.

See more by Thom here.

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Thom Harding was born and raised in the UK and USA, sharing his time between Bath and Boston. Upon completing his studies in Art History and Painting in Florence, Thom travelled around Mexico and India before moving to New Mexico to start his career as a Primary school teacher.

After completing his MA in Education, he now lives and works in Vienna, Austria and enjoys spending his free time hiking, reading, travelling and exploring around Europe.

See more of Thom’s work here in the Dispatches archive.

You can read more about Vienna here in the Dispatches archives.

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